Ayer ‘God Talk is evidently nonsense’ – Paragraphs 4 and 5 Text and questions

“It is not within the scope of this enquiry to enter more deeply into the causes of religious feeling, or to discuss the probability of the continuance of religious belief. We are concerned only to answer those questions which arise out of our discussion of the possibility of religious knowledge. The point which we wish to establish is that there cannot be any transcendent truths of religion. For the sentences which the theist uses to express such ‘truths’ are not literally significant.

An interesting feature of this conclusion is that it accords with what many theists are accustomed to say themselves. For we are often told that the nature of God is a mystery which transcends the human understanding. But to say that something transcends the human understanding is to say that it is unintelligible. And what is unintelligible cannot significantly be described. Again, we are told that God is not an object of reason but an object of faith. This may be nothing more than an admission that the existence of God must be taken on trust, since it cannot be proved. But it may also be an assertion that God is the object of a purely mystical intuition, and cannot therefore be defined in terms which are intelligible to the reason. And I think there are many theists who would assert this. But if one allows that it is impossible to define God in intelligible terms, then one is allowing that it is impossible for a sentence both to be significant and to be about God. If a mystic admits that the object of his vision is something which cannot be described, then he must also admit that he is bound to talk nonsense when he describes it.”

(a) Examine the argument and/or interpretation in the passage above. [30]

Ayer is well and truly into his stride now and in one fell swoop dismisses both religious experience and the language which might be used to describe what is learned from such an experience calling any such ‘truths’ ‘not literally significant.’

He cleverly argues in a circle that if God is transcendent then we cannot know him which means we cannot describe him therefore, Q.E.D (footnote 1), nothing we can say has any meaning or worth. Of course to some extent Ayer is correct in his assumption that ‘God is a mystery which transcends human understanding’ or as Anselm put it ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived.’ However his further assumption, that therefore nothing significant can be said, is a ‘leap too far!’ This is rather like the ontological argument in which even the atheist is happily able to agree with Anselm’s first premise, his definition of God. However the conclusion, which seems to follow naturally from the deductive premise that ‘that which is greatest must exist’ and therefore God does exist, is not acceptable to an atheist.

Ayer is of course coming from the perspective of one who does not believe in the realm of the numenon, just the physical realm of the phenomenon. Here he is making far too sweeping a generalisation. Few human beings really believe there is just the one plane of existence. Few are fully monist in outlook. Many, if not most, hope for, even believe in, a life after death. Many, like Plato in his cave analogy, feel that this existence is a mere foreshadowing of the one to come. He is also applying the verification principle, i.e. the idea that only those assertions which can be empirically verified using the five senses can be considered meaningful. However again he is making a ‘category mistake.‘ In religion as even Wittgenstein pointed out, you had to play the game by the rules. In his theory of Language Games he accepted that different areas of life had their own languages and they could not be played by another’s. Thus in religion you had to use religious language and if that means being imprecise and vague, a criticism that is often made of it, then so be it. One could not expect to judge religious claims by scientific principles any more than one could bake a cake or play cricket by them.

    Even if God is unintelligible does this mean that nothing significant can be said at all? A point in favour of Ayer’s assertion is possibly the via negativa. In this area of religious language God is described in purely negative terms i.e. in terms of what we know he is not, e.g. visible, audible, tangible and finite. Unfortunately for theists this does not leave us knowing very much positive about God. In addition the classical theistic view of God having the qualities of omnipresence, omnipotence, omni-benevolence and omniscience does not really add to our view of Him. So far most people would probably agree with Ayer that anything we can say is unintelligible! However this doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t try. Furthermore it is completely self-evident that God is an ‘object of faith’ and not reason! Surely that is the whole point! If we were able to prove the existence of God completely rationally then there would be no choice and no place for faith.

    However where any theist would take issue with Ayer is in his outrageous assertion that ‘it is impossible for a sentence to be both significant and about God.’ In high-handedly dismissing religious experience as ‘altogether fallacious‘ he is dismissing a whole swathe of people throughout history who have had an experience which they have called a religious one, in which they believe they have encountered ‘the wholly other‘ (Otto) or a ‘sense of the ultimate‘ (Schleiermacher) or God! As St Teresa of Avila put it ‘it is impossible for me to doubt that I have been in God and he in me.’ This utter conviction is not so easily dismissible as Ayer would suggest. Surely too, this is one area which is at least open to possible empirical verification. Although no one can ever know for sure what someone else has experienced which clearly makes them subjective, and they are certainly open to interpretation and even misinterpretation, nevertheless the effect on the lives of the experients is measurable. And if that effect has been good and a complete change, e.g. in behaviour [St Paul or Nicky Cruz] or a sense of ‘utter conviction‘ as Donovan describes it [St Teresa of Avila], then perhaps Ayer’s suggestion that attributing said experience to ‘God’ ‘merely gives us indirect information about the condition of his own mind‘ is too sweeping a generalisation.

    Finally his contempt for ‘religious knowledge’ as ‘nonsense’ is as ridiculous as the rest of his claims. Ayer would have got on well with Richard Dawkins but even Dawkins admits to extreme agnosticism rather than out and out atheism or as he put it: ‘There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can’t prove that there aren’t any, so shouldn’t we be agnostic with respect to fairies?‘ (footnote 2) Whereas Ayer dismisses the theist’s, atheist’s and agnostic’s claims equally, asserting that nothing any of them can say with respect to religion is in any way meaningful.

(b) Do you agree? Justify your point of view and explain the implications for religion and human experience. [20]

Who is Ayer to say what knowledge is and what counts as knowledge? Despite being a non-believer myself I cannot but disagree with Ayer! It seems to me to be utterly arrogant to dismiss so completely so much of human experience as ‘nonsense’ meaning of literally no importance!

    In my opinion he couldn’t be further from the truth. He might be right that religious experiences are not exactly ‘intelligible, ‘ but to say they are not ‘genuine cognitive states’ is going too far. Dr Michael Persinger with his so called ‘god-helmet’ has demonstrated sufficiently that complete sensory deprivation can induce a ‘religious’ like state and VS Ramachandran has demonstrated that stimulation of the temporal lobe can also induce trance like states in which a religious like experience can be had. These both show that there is a genuine neurological element to the experience and that the effects can be repeated. While Ayer may be right that they needn’t necessarily be attributed to ‘God’ that doesn’t mean all can be dismissed as entirely explicable. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet ‘there are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

    Although religion can be blamed for many horrible things which have occurred in history, from the Crusades, through wars, to persecution of ‘infidels’ or people with a different coloured skin; to mass genocide perhaps best exemplified by the atrocities of the concentration camps of WW2 or the Serbo-Croat war of the 1990s, to the way that fundamentalism of both Islam and Christianity are on the rise in the 21st century, it can also be credited with some of the most amazing endeavours our history has seen.

    The crusades enabled Byzantine art forms to spread into cathedrals and other religious buildings, yet as the Catholic encyclopaedia suggests religious art began to disappear after the pre-Raphaelite era: ‘The reason for this impoverishment of religious art must not only be sought in a diminution of the Christian sentiment’ the paintings of Da Vinci e.g The Last Supper, Michelangelo painter of the Sistine chapel ceiling, the sculpture of Rodin whose piece The Thinker draws on both Adam and Prometheus mythology, and Botticelli who as one of the followers of the deeply moralistic monk Savonarola is famed for his religious paintings and Sistine frescoes. Then there is a plethora of literature with religious themes to name just a few: Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales‘, Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy‘, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost‘, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein‘ and Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses‘ – many of these have been banned at some time somewhere in the world (footnote 3); and in poetry with the work of John Donne, Coleridge’s the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Wordsworth and many others.

    Where would we be without the inspiration of the architects of the world’s greatest buildings: the Taj Mahal, The Parthenon, the Vatican, the Great Mosque of Djenne, The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and our own St Paul’s Cathedral? Or the music of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ or ‘The St Matthew Passion’ by Bach?

Then there is science and for example the scientific discoveries made by Galileo and Newton who began to describe and explain the natural and physical laws by which the earth operates. These discoveries drastically changed the way that man viewed the world and nature. (footnote 4)

In view of these and so many other examples it is ludicrous to accept Ayer’s point of view that it is meaningless because it quite clearly isn’t meaning-less to the people who have built, painted, written, discovered, adventured, sung, composed all ‘supposedly’ in the name of God.

Religious feeling has inspired as much as it has been the justification for abominable acts such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For better or worse the world we have today with its history, societies, laws and political systems is the way it is because of religion and whether or not there is a real basis for believing that there is a transcendent God at the heart of everything the effect of such beliefs cannot be doubted. As Dawkins said: ‘We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.’


  1. Q.E.D. is an initialism of the Latin phrase
    quod erat demonstrandum, which translates as “which was to be demonstrated” or “as was to be expected”. The phrase is traditionally placed in its abbreviated form at the end of a mathematical proof or philosophical
    argument when what was specified in the enunciation — and in the setting-out — has been exactly restated as the conclusion of the demonstration.[1] The abbreviation thus signals the completion of the proof.
  2. Read more: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/r/richard_dawkins_2.html#ixzz1o4NGT6zp
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_books_banned_by_governments
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Issues_in_Science_and_Religion


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